Tiger fading away, but we still must watch

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — To the very end, until he decided to step away, Sinatra could fill a room. You thought of that when Tiger Woods, still searching for a past seemingly gone forever, came to the press tent for his pre-British Open interview.

It was standing room only for the media. Tiger never gives up, nor do we.
There are extenuating circumstances, to be sure. This is St. Andrews, the Old Course, where twice Woods has won what is known here only as “The Open Championship.” Any other identifying label being incongruous in this land where the game was born.

“The home of golf,” Woods several times reminded a couple hundred people who hardly needed that reminder.

Woods no longer is the main attraction, but he remains a headliner, even with Jordan Spieth going for the never-accomplished Grand Slam, even with an injured Rory McIlroy unable to defend his 2014 championship.

Tiger for so long was the person around whom golfing interest was constructed. Now, as he struggles, it’s difficult to change direction. He’s famous. He’s infamous. Who cares about Louis Oosthuizen, who in 2010 won the last Open played here? He’s just a golfer. Tiger is a personality.

That Woods virtually has no chance of finishing first in this 144th Open is not the issue. We surround him like the potentate he was, believing, as he tells us again and again, it’s only a matter of time and practice until he’s back — if not on top, then at least in the vicinity. When fading sports stars frequently talk like that is not a surprise. The belief in their ability is part of what made them great. That is when they could handle a fastball or, in Tiger’s case, a 5-iron to a tucked pin.

Some Scottish type asked Woods about retirement, which was both courageous and ridiculous. Football players retire or mostly their teams retire the players. Golfers don’t retire. Especially when they’re 39. Woods responded as diplomatically as he could.

“I’m still young. I’m not 40 yet,” he said. “I know some of you guys think I’m buried and done, but I’m still right here in front of you. Yeah, I love playing. I love competing, and I love playing these events.

“I don’t have any AARP card yet, so I’m a ways from that. I feel like my body is finally healed up from the (back) surgery last year. They say it takes you about four to six months to get back, but I’ve heard guys on Tour and other athletes who’ve had the surgery say it takes over a year to get back. And I’ve changed my golf swing too.”

Which is no less a problem. Here’s a battered Woods trying to alter his arcs and angles. Here’s a man who we’re told that, along with the late Seve Ballesteros, was one of the great natural golfers ever so baffled that twice in recent tournaments he couldn’t break 80—one of those tournaments the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in July.

Woods did play decently two weeks ago at the Greenbrier, although he made two double bogeys. As every golfer who’s ever existed he takes positives from whatever he can. We are the ones who point out the course is relatively easy and was softened by rain. So let it go.

“I hit the ball the best I hit in probably two years Sunday (at Greenbrier),” he said. “I’ve hit the ball just as well in my practice rounds.” Of course, he’s optimistic. Have you ever heard a golfer say he’s got no chance? “Just the fact I’m playing better,” Woods said when asked the reason for optimism. And some of us say, better than what?

Not better than Spieth, who is the first golfer since 2002 to win the year’s opening two majors. The last was Woods, who had his chance at a Grand Slam destroyed by a rainstorm which arrived when Tiger did at the first tee of the third round. Woods shot 81.

“It depends on his practice rounds,” Woods said of Spieth’s opportunity. “Depends on where the wind is in the practice rounds.” Meaning on a course where weather is such a factor—the essential factor—will Spieth be able to experience every condition he may face when it counts.

“The wind,” said Tiger, “totally changes things.”

At St. Andrews nothing or no one stay the same for long. As Tiger Woods is so aware. It isn’t yesterday.

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